Legendary photographer Phil Stern is the man behind the lens for some of history’s most intimate portraits of Hollywood stars, including Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr., James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor. But he doesn’t like to talk of his exploits. “You’re putting me in a position that’s bragging about myself,” he says.
On Sept. 3, Stern will let his photos do the bragging. That’s the day he turns 95. And he plans to donate 95 of his famous photos to the Veterans Home of California, where he lives. “Most of the walls here are bare, and my images may be an improvement,” he quips.
As a teen, Stern had worked as an apprentice in a New York photo studio and as a local police photographer, but got his baptism of fire, quite literally, at age 21, when he became a combat photographer in Darby’s Rangers during World War II, after convincing Col. William O. Darby to allow him to join. Stern was decorated with a Purple Heart for his services. “There were a lot of very ugly things during the war — and a lot of very beautiful things,” he recalls. “I photographed everything.”
After the war, Stern contributed photo essays to Life magazine on postwar social rehabilitation. He also found himself in Hollywood, snapping shots of celebrities and working as a still cameraman on films such as “Guys and Dolls” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
One celebrity he didn’t photograph is the one he says he most wished he could have. “The one I most admired,” he explains, “Charlie Chaplin.”
These days, his shoots are easier to set up. He points to one of his most recent photos, and says with a smile, “This is Sadie, who’s 100 years old.”
He still wears a camera around his neck, though now he works with a digital model, and captures life around him from his wheelchair. “I call it shooting from the hip,” he says.